It’s just a simple tea making its way through the galaxy (cheers to our readers who are Star Wars fans), but is Boba tea healthy? While certain components of Boba tea may be beneficial for overall health, others likely cancel out any benefits and can, in fact, contribute to increased risk for serious disease. Let’s examine the arguments both for and against the healthiness of Boba tea.
What is Boba tea?
Boba tea is an extremely popular drink that originated in Taiwan and quickly took the world by storm: the estimated global market size for Boba Tea was $2 billion (USD) in 2019.
Commonly sold in Boba cafes, Boba tea is often consumed as a social drink in casual yet pleasant settings.
Often bright and colorful due to various additives such as sugars, fruits, and fruit syrups, Boba tea in its purest form is comprised of three main components:
- A tea base — either black, green, or white tea — all of which are made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant.
- Cow’s milk; (milk alternatives are sometimes also used, such as almond milk, oat milk, coconut milk, etc., but for the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on cow’s milk).
- Chewy tapioca pearls known as “Boba”; (other types of boba made from different substances exist as well, such as crystal boba, which is made from the konjac plant, or bursting boba, which is made of juice).
At first glance, the tea and milk components of Boba tea may lead you to believe that delicious Boba tea could also be good for you. After all, tea = healthy, calm, and centered, right? While there is some truth to this, it’s not the whole story — so let’s break this down step-by-step:
Is Boba tea healthy? The good
As mentioned above, the tea component of Boba tea is derived from the leaves of the traditional tea plant, Camellia sinensis. The leaves of the tea plant contain chemical compounds called polyphenols that are responsible for the familiar flavor and aroma of tea. Common classes of polyphenols that you might have heard of include flavonols, theaflavins, and catechins. In addition to the flavor and aroma they provide, research studies have connected these polyphenols to several health benefits.
- Protection from skin cancer:
- Protection from prostate cancer:
- A study from the Mayo Clinic found that green tea has some antineoplastic activity in patients with androgen independent prostate carcinoma.
- A Curtin University of Technology study showed that increasing frequency, duration, and quantity of green tea consumption was associated with decreased prostate cancer risk.
- Protection from lung cancer
- Protection from breast cancer
- Consumption of green tea prior to cancer onset was found to be associated with improved prognosis of stage 1 and stage 2 breast cancer in a study by the Saitama Cancer Center Research Institute in Japan.
- Researchers at The University of Western Australia also found that consumption of green tea can protect against breast cancer.
- Protection from other cancers
- Protection from cardiovascular diseases
- The polyphenols from black and green tea were found to significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure in stroke-prone spontaneously hypertensive rats.
- Green tea consumption was associated with reduced risk of coronary artery disease in male patients in a study out of Nanjing Medical University in China.
- Drinking at least one cup of tea weekly was associated with a significant decrease in ischemic stroke risk according to a Curtin University of Technology study.
- Protection against diabetes
- A cohort study of middle-aged and older women in the U.S. found that women who consumed more than or equal to 4 cups of tea per day had a 30% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to non-drinkers.
- A cohort study of Japanese adults showed that consuming more than or equal to 6 cups of green tea per day reduced risk of diabetes by 33%.
- Protection against arthritis
- A Cambridge University study found that among older women in Britain, tea drinkers had higher bone mineral density than non-drinkers.
- Women who drank more than or equal to 3 cups/tea per day were at reduced risk for rheumatoid arthritis compared to non-drinkers, according to the University of Alabama at Birmingham
- Protection against neurological disease
- Drinking two or more cups of tea per day was associated with reduced risk for Parkinson’s Disease, according to a study from the University of Washington.
- Similarly, a Finnish study from the National Public Health Institute in Helsinki found that drinking 3 or more cups of tea a day reduced PD risk.
Learn more: What Are Polyphenols?
In addition to the health benefits of the tea leaves contained in Boba tea, the milk component of Boba tea may also provide further health benefits, such as:
- Protection against type 2 diabetes
- Weight management, protection from cardiovascular disease, and alleviation of metabolic syndrome
- Whey protein, a component of milk, has been shown to help reduce body weight, maintain muscle mass, and reduce blood pressure, inflammation, and oxidative stress, while also improving vascular function.
- Long-term milk casein hydrolysate was shown to attenuate the development of hypertension and provide other cardiovascular benefits.
- When combined with a weight-loss intervention, consumption of calcium and vitamin D amplified the positive effect of weight loss on lipid and lipoprotein profile in study subjects.
- In a study of 40 overweight and obese adults with metabolic syndrome, increased dairy intake was shown to alleviate oxidative and inflammatory stress.
Learn more about milk and the health benefits of dairy foods: Dairy and Diabetes.
Is Boba tea healthy? The bad
Given the incredible health benefits of two of the major components of Boba tea — tea and milk — Boba tea seems like a pretty good option for boosting your health with a tasty, social drink. Buuut….there’s a but.
According to a study from Pepperdine University, an average single-serving (16-oz cup) of Boba tea contains 38 grams of sugar — which is more than the Daily Recommended Amount of sugar intake, according to the American Heart Association. Boba’s high sugar content is thanks to its preparation with additives such as sweeteners, fruits, and fruit syrups. These are often added to tame the strong, somewhat bitter flavor some teas can have, in addition to offering a variety of fun fruit flavors that consumers enjoy.
While all this sugar can make Boba delicious, it also likely cancels out many of the potential health benefits we discussed earlier, and may in fact increase the risk of disease.
Sugar and diabetes
Normally, when you ingest food, the carbohydrates in the food are broken down into glucose, a simple sugar, which is then released into your bloodstream. Next, insulin from your pancreas moves the glucose out of your bloodstream and into your cells where the glucose is converted into energy for use. In the right amount, sugar is actually vital for your body to keep functioning properly.
The problem, however, arises when consuming food and beverages — such as Boba tea — that are extremely high in sugar content. When you consume a high-sugar drink, your blood sugar rises sharply. This is OK once in a while, but if you regularly consume a lot of sugar, you can develop chronically high blood sugar levels. High blood sugar triggers the body’s inflammatory response, which makes it harder for your body to metabolize glucose properly and in turn further increases your blood sugar levels, increasing inflammation even more. High blood sugar also contributes to weight gain and obesity, which also promote inflammation. It’s a vicious cycle.
When the body’s inflammatory response spirals out of control like this, inflammatory cytokines prevent insulin from clearing out glucose in the bloodstream, eventually leading to insulin resistance, which is a huge risk factor for diabetes. When you are insulin resistant, your blood sugar is continually high and this can develop into dangerous conditions such as heart disease, kidney failure, nerve damage, and even blindness.
To learn more about blood sugar, inflammation, insulin resistance, and diabetes, see:
- Blood Sugar, Diabetes, and Inflammation
- The Link Between Blood Sugar and Diabetes
- What Is Insulin Resistance?
Many Boba Cafes do offer the option to order milk teas with no added sugar or sweeteners, so if you want to enjoy a delicious, fun Boba every once in a while, there are ways to make it healthier. Do keep in mind, however, that the ingredient that gives Boba its name and appeal — the Boba pearl — also contains sugar.
So, is Boba tea healthy? In continuation of our Star Wars motif, the tea and milk components of Boba tea may provide significant health benefits, but this popular drink quickly falls to the Dark Side due to its high sugar content, which could contribute to high blood sugar and other downstream health problems. Though you’re probably safe enjoying Boba tea occasionally, we wouldn’t recommend making a habit of it. Instead, try to increase your consumption of plain tea and milk without excess sugar. And when you do want to enjoy a Boba, try to order milk teas instead of fruit-flavored teas — and ask for no added sugar. Doing this will help decrease your risk of many diseases, including diabetes. May the tea leaves be with you!